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    Author: By Beth Healy, Globe Staff Date: 11/12/2000 Page: D1 Section: Business

BUSINESS & MONEY WALTHAM - Paul Ferri keeps two client letters framed on the wall behind his office door in this suburban haven of venture capital.

One letter, dated Sept. 12, 1994, informs the Matrix Partners founder that an overseas investment group would sit out that year's venture portfolio. Results in Fund II had not wowed the group, and it was "premature to make a judgment on Matrix Partners III."

Talk about an expensive decision.

The other letter, sent in April 1995, contains a rave from an elated American investor: "I have never seen a portfolio explode on the upside as has Matrix III in the past year."

Matrix hasn't opened its venture funds to new investors since. The firm has emerged as one of the best performers in the business, according to several investment sources, with a stunning 95 percent average annual return over the past decade. It's a record that rivals even the venture industry's Silicon Valley titans. And the returns on Matrix's latest fund appear to be unrivaled on either coast.

This is fighting talk in venture circles, where egos are huge and investment results are guarded like family secrets. But with the stock market in the doldrums and dot-com flops deflating venture returns after three sizzling years, it's a good time to take a peek and see who has really made money in this field.

Stephen N. Lisson, a writer in Austin, Texas, tracks top venture players on his Web site,, much to the chagrin of the venture firms. He has sparked controversy for researching and posting the returns on his site, but his numbers, when checked with independent sources, appear to be correct or in the ballpark.

According to Lisson's numbers, Matrix's Fund V, a $200 million fund launched in 1998, is the best venture fund of all time, with a 725 percent return. Lisson says it's really too soon to judge funds of the 1998 vintage because they're young and many of their portfolio companies haven't been sold or taken public, or left to die yet. Venture funds, after all, have 10-year lives. But in the case of Matrix V, he says, "Even if everything else in the fund tanked, the internal rate of return of 725 percent would stand."

This fund claims several hot deals, including telecom IPO juggernauts Sycamore Networks Inc. and Sonus Networks, which turned early-stage investments of $17 million into holdings worth more than $3 billion. Of the $450 million Matrix invested from funds III, IV, and V, about $220 million went into companies that have gone public or have been sold. That $220 million has returned more than $11.5 billion, the firm says.

Matrix partner Timothy Barrows says a sharp discipline kept the firm away from the dot-com mania that clouded the judgment of many venture firms.

"There are things we could have made money on," Barrows says. "We turned down Geo Cities," a company that helps people launch Web sites.

But Barrows and his six Matrix partners can only feel good about getting into telecom and optical firms early, focusing on infrastructure and, more recently, storage. The firm is famous for putting entrepreneurs from its past successes, like Cascade Communications and Apollo, to work at the new firms. And it simply won't do deals unless it's the lead investor, in first, with board seats.

The recipe has paid off handsomely for entrepreneurs, too. Matrix has helped create more than 2,500 millionaires at its portfolio companies. More than 40 of those people can claim a net worth exceeding $100 million, the firm estimates.

Ferri says the firm wasn't always this good.

To some extent, he understands why that overseas investor fired the firm in 1994. Matrix's first two funds posted above-average returns, he said, but they were nothing special.

"We looked like everyone else," Ferri says. "There was no reason anyone would come to see Matrix specifically."

But the firm was in the process of a makeover it had started in 1990. It decided to turn more attention to New England, instead of investing two-thirds of its assets in Silicon Valley. It stopped investing in medical devices and retail and focused only on high-tech start-ups. And it decided to do only hands-on deals.

"If we're not the largest investors in a deal, we're not in a deal," Ferri says.

Thirty years in the business has paid off, the 61-year-old veteran says. He's not at all surprised by the carnage and losses overwhelming the new entrants to the business, from fly-by-night incubators to start-up venture firms.

"It looks like an easy business to be good at," Ferri says. As a result, over the past few years, pension funds and other big investors have flooded venture funds with cash. "They've been giving money to a lot of people who don't have a clue as to what they're doing."

All the best firms do have a clue, of course. Other top funds of venture capital's record decade include Sequoia Capital's Fund VIII, with a return of nearly 402 percent, and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers' Fund VIII, with a return of 350 percent. These two firms are considered the most successful and most experienced of Silicon Valley.

Lisson's long view, assessing all the top firms over the past decade, is this: "Vintage year after vintage year, fund after fund, there is no question that Sequoia and Matrix will be at the top."

People who run university endowments and foundations corroborate Matrix's reputation. In the same company, venture experts put Boston's venerable Greylock Management Corp.; North Bridge Venture Partners of Waltham; Kleiner, Perkins; Benchmark Capital Partners - the Silicon Valley firm of eBay fame - and Redpoint Ventures, also of the Valley.

In the next breath come Battery Ventures of Wellesley, Charles River Ventures of Waltham, and Oak Investment Partners of Westport, Conn.

There are dozens of other fine firms with great returns. But only one can be the best. One Boston endowment investor who has money in many top venture funds - speaking on condition of anonymity, so he wouldn't anger several successful and hyper-competitive venture players - says of Matrix, "The last three funds have been extraordinary."

"Matrix," he adds, "is in a league of their own."



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